Founder of #MeToo Tarana Burke discusses genesis of viral movement

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Tarana Burke discusses how #MeToo has affected her personally, as well as the future of the movement. NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and Time 2017 person of the year, visited the College of William and Mary Wednesday, March 13AMP and Student Assembly co-sponsored the event, which was also supported by the Janet and Peter Atwater lecture endowment in conjunction with the College’s anniversary of co-education. 

 Burke is currently travelling the world to speak about her experience with the #MeToo movement, especially on college campuses. Her presentation focused primarily on the genesis of the movement and also discussed common misconceptions that people have about #MeToo and the path forward for survivors and allies alike. 

 Burke began by explaining how her upbringing inspired and supported her to become the organizer she is today. Growing up in the Bronx in a socially conscious family, Burke said that it was her black, feminist mother who wanted to make sure that Burke was always aware of her own worth. 

 “My mother wanted to make sure that as a black woman I was grounded in the woman I was because the world was going to tell me different,” Burke said. 

 When Burke was a young woman, she was always interested in social activism but did not have the knowledge to talk about sexual violence. According to Burke, sexual violence was rarely discussed in her community, especially within her immediate family because it was considered a private matter. 

 “The number one rule in our household was ‘our business is our business,’ so it never occurred to me that I would share my deep dark secret in this circle,” Burke said. 

 However, after a younger girl named Heaven divulged to Burke that she had been sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, Burke knew she had to do something to support survivors. 

 Burke identified this interaction with Heaven as a driving force behind her decision to become more educated on how to support survivors of sexual trauma and misconduct. She felt inadequate when someone needed her support during their recovery, but she lacked the knowledge and resources to support them, and she never wanted to be lost for words or feel like a ‘deer caught in headlights’ again.  

 “Up until this moment I spent my time trying to forget the violence I had experienced, but this sweet little brown girl was kicking those doors down,” Burke said. “What I just wanted to say was, this happened to me too. And that lead me to this moment. In that moment, I made the decision that this wouldn’t happen to me again.” 

 “Up until this moment I spent my time trying to forget the violence I had experienced, but this sweet little brown girl was kicking those doors down,” Burke said. “What I just wanted to say was, this happened to me too. And that lead me to this moment. In that moment, I made the decision that this wouldn’t happen to me again.” 

 When #MeToo went viral, Burke had already been working on the movement for around a decade. While she was not surprised that sexual misconduct had manifested in so many people’s lives, she failed to anticipate that people finally felt comfortable talking openly about their experiences with sexual traumaShe was aware of the widespread nature of this issue already, but when the hashtag picked up on social media, alerting the rest of the world to the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, the movement gained an urgency that it had been lacking before. 

 “We had all these young girls walking around carrying these wounds,” Burke said. “And we were finally talking about sexual violence out loud.” 

 However, Burke said that after sexual violence became more visible, survivors were sometimes pressured to exhibit their pain in way that they had not been before. Once the movement became increasingly visible, survivors faced expectations to behave in a manner fully reflective of their traumatic experiences, and Burke argued that survivors should not have face such pressures.   

 When asked about the common misconceptions facing the #MeToo movement, Burke said that people often view it as a women’s movement when it actually focuses on the needs of all survivors. The movement is not just for women because not all survivors identify as women. She said that while she understands the urge to claim it as a women’s movement, there are plenty of male and gendernonconforming survivors who need to be included as well. 

 “Women are at the forefront because that’s what we do, but no one should feel excluded by it,” Burke said. “We all have a role to play.” 

 Burke’s own daughter is a queer, gendernonconforming, polyamorous unicorn, according to Burke. She said that her daughter is her main source of inspiration and that their openness and courage to be themselves acts as a guiding force in Burke’s life. 

 Another misconception that Burke discussed is that people often claim that the movement is taking people down” or that it is some sort of witch hunt. Burke said this is harmful because it builds resentment toward the movement and that #MeToo is not about the perpetrator in any way; it’s about the survivors.  

 Burke said she has stopped giving interviews about a specific person who was recently discovered to have sexually assaulted someone because it feeds into this narrative of the movement being out to get people. She said that she wants to talk about the whole system around the perpetrator that allows sexual violence to happen rather than focusing on a singular case. 

 “I feel like there’s a portal; this is such a sudden thing that happened,” Burke said. “We may have lots of time or we may not, so it feels really important to get it right soon.” 

 When asked about how universities can approach these issues and support survivors, Burke said that it seemed like the College was on the right path already, with organizations like Health Outreach Peer Educators, Someone You Know and The Haven. She said that the solutions are different on every campus because they should be built around what that specific student body needs. Howevershe said there should always be an anonymous reporting system in place and that students need to feel safe coming forward. 

 “If the most marginalized people on campus don’t feel as safe as the safest white girl on campus than you have a problem,” Burke said. 

 Burke also gave advice about how to support a friend who has experienced sexual violence. She said that the first question an ally should ask when assisting a survivor is ‘How can I help you with this?’ and then to be there for what the survivor needs without casting judgement or pressuring them to come forward. She explained that after experiencing sexual violence, a survivor has already lost control of their own body, so being in control of what happens next is important. Allies must follow the survivors lead, and it is not the ally’s job to get the survivor to talk about what happened to them. 

 “There’s so much strength in survival, and it really diminishes a survivor when we don’t trust them to know what they need,” Burke said. 

 “There’s so much strength in survival, and it really diminishes a survivor when we don’t trust them to know what they need,” Burke said. 

 Burke said the most painful part of the movement, for her personally, has been black women presuming that the #MeToo movement is reserved for white women. She explained that as the blackest woman ever this rejection hurt her and that the movement has been and always will be for the most marginalized among us. However, she said that representation of the movement needs to be diverse in order to promote this and that representation in the media and elsewhere is the problem propagating the misguided view that #MeToo is a predominantly white movement. She ended her presentation by saying that if you claim this movement as your own, then it is yours. 

 “There will never be a day as long as I have breath that I don’t center around black and brown girls,” Burke said. “But I can do that and still stand up for all the other people here. Don’t turn your power over to other people.” 

 After the event, Mackenzie Nihill ’19 said that Burke had presented the forces behind the #MeToo movement with clarity and accuracy. 

 “It was really good she was really well put together and presented her ideas well and answered the questions confidently and had a lot of solid answers for a lot of the problems that have come up with the #MeToo movement,” Nihill said. 

 Nuhami Alemu ’21 said she came to the event not really knowing what to expect but left inspired and with concrete ideas about how to change the culture around sexual violence and support survivors.  

 “Everyone should be about this movement; it shouldn’t be an us versus them type of mentality,” Alemu said. “We should be coming together and getting rid of this thing destroying lives.” 

 “Everyone should be about this movement; it shouldn’t be an us versus them type of mentality,” Alemu said. “We should be coming together and getting rid of this thing destroying lives.”